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There is a sense in which I address this issue with a measure of reluctance and hesitation. It isn’t because I’m in doubt about what Scripture says on the subject or because I’m uncertain about my own beliefs. It has to do with the widespread misunderstandings about headship and submission.

Many think that headship and submission mean that a wife must sit passively and endure the sin or the abuse of the husband, as if submission means she has no right to stand up for what is true and good or to resist her husband’s evil ways. Perhaps some of you come from families in which the husband was an insensitive bully and where it was assumed that it was the wife’s “duty” to tolerate this silently. God’s word does not call upon a wife to acquiesce to brutality or thievery or abuse.

Some of you may think that a husband can get away with whatever he wants in the name of headship, as if that word or concept endorses and encourages his sinful behavior, such that the wife has no recourse but to “submit” to his dictatorial and destructive ways. I, and I trust, all complementarians, utterly reject and grieve over such a terrible distortion and misapplication of the principles addressed in this study.

I know that there are both men and women who look at someone like me or other complementarians and say to themselves, or perhaps even say to others, “My dad is a mean and abusive bully who belittles my mom and ignores her needs and those complementarians hold to a view that says that’s ok or at that there’s nothing she can do but quietly ‘submit’ and put up with it; after all, he’s the head of the house.”

It’s hard not to be offended by such a horrible distortion of the truth. I assure you of this one thing: that is not biblical headship; that is not biblical submission.

On more than one occasion I’ve had women tell me horrible stories of neglect, tyranny, abuse, abandonment, and even adultery on the part of the man, the husband, and then say: “How could you possibly embrace complementarianism, a view that permits and perhaps even encourages such sinful behavior.” Let it be said once and for all: I don’t! Can complementarianism and the notion of male headship be perverted and distorted by selfishness and sinful oppression? Yes. Even as egalitarianism and the denial of male headship can be perverted and distorted into a rejection of any differences between male and female.

My prayer is that if nothing else is accomplished in these studies, perhaps I may be of some help in clarifying the meaning of these ideas and how they actually work within a marriage.

A good place to begin is with the meaning of marriage (Gen. 2:24; Mt. 19:5; Mark 10:7-8; Eph. 5:31). I would define marriage as the enjoyment of spiritual and physical unity based on a life-long, covenant commitment.

Marriage is a unity of both flesh and spirit. It is a mutual commitment in which husband and wife share their bodies, their spirits, their possessions, their problems, their insights and ideas, their goals and gripes, their sadness and happiness. Ideally, nothing should stand in the way of this mutual experience. As Wayne Mack explains:

"The wife promises that she will be faithful even if the husband is afflicted with bulges, baldness, bunions, and bifocals; even if he loses his health, his wealth, his job, his charm; even if someone more exciting comes along. The husband promises to be faithful even if the wife loses her beauty and appeal; even if she is not as neat and tidy or as submissive as he would like her to be; even if she does not satisfy his sexual desires completely; even if she spends money foolishly or is a terrible cook. Marriage means that a husband and wife enter into a relationship for which they accept full responsibility and in which they commit themselves to each other regardless of what problems arise" (3).

In order for true, biblical unity to occur, both husband and wife must understand what the Bible means by headship and submission. The failure to appreciate these truths has contributed immeasurably to disunity and eventual dissolution of countless marriages.


"Headship" (kephale) has three meanings in Scripture: (1) a physical head (1 Cor. 11:7); (2) source or origin (Col. 1:18); and (3) a person with authority (Eph. 1:22).

A.Misconceptions about the Nature of Headship

1.Husbands are never commanded to rule their wives, but to love them. The Bible never says, “Husbands, take steps to insure that your wives submit to you.” Nor does it say, “Husbands, exercise headship and authority over your wives.” Rather, the principle of male headship is either asserted or assumed and men are commanded to love their wives as Christ loves the church.

2.Headship is never portrayed in Scripture as a means for self-satisfaction or self-exaltation. Headship is always other-oriented. I can’t think of a more horrendous sin than exploiting the God-given responsibility to lovingly lead by perverting it into justification for using one’s wife and family to satisfy one’s lusts and thirst for power.

3.Headship is not the power of a superior over an inferior. Human nature is sinfully inclined to distort the submission of the wife into the superiority of the husband. That some, in the name of male headship, have done precisely this cannot be denied, but it must certainly be denounced. We must also remember that the abuse of headship is not sufficient justification for abandoning it. Rather, we must strive, in God’s grace, to redeem it and purify it in a way that honors both Christ and one’s spouse.

4.Headship is never to be identified with the issuing of commands.

5.Headship does not mean that the husband must make every decision in the home. Unfortunately, some men have mistakenly assumed that it undermines their authority for their wives to take the initiative in certain domestic matters. This is more an expression of masculine insecurity and fear than it is godly leadership.

B.Identifying the Essence of Headship

1.Headship is more a responsibility than a right. A “right” is something we tend to demand or insist upon as something we are owed. This can all too often make for an authoritarian and self-serving atmosphere in the home. When headship is viewed as a sacred trust in which the husband is “called” by God to lead and honor and sacrifice for his wife, the tone and mood of the home is radically improved.

2.Headship is the authority to serve. John Stott explains:

"If headship means 'power' in any sense, then it is power to care, not to crush; power to serve, not to dominate; power to facilitate self-fulfillment, not to frustrate or destroy it. And in all this the standard of the husband's love is to be the cross of Christ, on which he surrendered himself even to death in his selfless love for his bride" (232).

3.Headship is the opportunity to lead. If Jesus is our example of biblical leadership, it will help to take note of how he led his disciples.

·        Jesus led by teaching his disciples (cf. 1 Cor. 14:35)

·        Jesus led by setting an example for his disciples (John 13:15)

·        Jesus led by spending time with his disciples (Acts 4:13)

·        Jesus led by delegating authority to his disciples (Luke 10:1-20)

4.Headship is Scripturally circumscribed. Husbands have never been given the authority to lead their families in ways that are contrary to the Bible. On a related note, if a wife is ever asked or told by her husband to do something that violates Scripture, she is not only free to disobey him, she is obligated to do so.

5.Headship does entail the responsibility to make a final decision when agreement cannot be reached. This final decision, however, may on occasion be to let his wife decide. No. contrary to what you may think, this latter option does not undermine the husband’s authority.

6.Headship entails gentleness and sensitivity. See Col. 3:18-19 where Paul exhorts husbands not to be "embittered" against their wives. The idea is that of "friction caused by impatience and thoughtless nagging" (Moule).

7.Headship does not give men the right to be wrong. Simply because God has invested in the husband the authority to lead does not give him the freedom to lead in ways that are contrary to God’s Word.

8.Headship means honoring one's wife. See 1 Peter 3:7.

9.Headship means loving and caring for one's wife as much as we love and care for ourselves. See Eph. 5:28-29.

10.Headship means loving and caring for one's wife as much as Christ loves and cares for us. See Eph. 5:25-27. Christ's love for us has several characteristics:

·        It is unconditional (Rom. 5:8)

·        It is eternal (Rom. 8:39)

·        It is unselfish (Phil. 2:6-7)

·        It is purposeful (Eph. 5:26-27)

"Christ 'loved' the church and 'gave himself' for her, in order to 'cleanse' her, 'sanctify' her, and ultimately 'present' her to himself in full splendour and without any defect. In other words, his love and self-sacrifice were not an idle display, but purposive. And his purpose was not to impose an alien identity upon the church, but to free her from the spots and wrinkles which mar her beauty and to display her in her true glory. The Christian husband is to have a similar concern. His headship will never be used to suppress his wife. He longs to see her liberated from everything which spoils her true feminine identity and growing towards that 'glory', that perfection of fulfilled personhood which will be the final destiny of all those whom Christ redeems. To this end Christ gave himself. To this end too the husband gives himself in love" (Stott).

·        It is sacrificial (Eph. 5:25)

·        It is demonstrative (Rom. 5:6-8)

The way Jesus related to women in general is a model for all men:

"They [women] had never known a man like this Man – there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made jokes about them, never treated them either as 'The women, God help us!' or 'The ladies, God bless them!'; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything 'funny' about women's nature" (Dorothy Sayers).